By Bill Vossler
Mark Gilles of Upsala fell in love with old cast-iron wrenches when he was 14 years old.
“My grandpa had an old Farmall tractor, and had some old wrenches hanging on a wall in a shed, an old monkey wrench with a wooden handle, a crescent wrench, and others. And one day he gave them to me. That was when I started collecting.”
But Mark had liked the old wrenches even before that. “They just fascinated me, the different sizes or shapes, old cast iron ones or pressed iron ones. They were just interesting to look at.”
So he began to buy them. “When I was young I used to go to flea markets and buy them for a dime or a quarter each. I put them in cream cans, until I had several cream cans full, and started cleaning them up and hanging them up. That’s how it all started.”
A Wrenching Tale
Today, Mark’s collection consists of thousands in an apartment entirely dedicated to the wrenches. Though he likes John Deere and probably has more from the green-oriented company as well as IHC wrenches, he likes all of the pieces in his collection. “John Deere and International both bought out many companies, so I consider the tools and wrenches from those companies as part of the larger company,” like Plano Harvesting Co. for International Harvester, and Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. for John Deere.
His Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. are some of his favorites. “They’re kind of different, with two open ends or three open ends. They’re kind of cute.”
Wrenches, corn planter plates, seeder ends, and other items for his collection aren’t as easy to find nowadays as they used to be, Mark said. “I used to find a lot of wrenches at the Monticello flea market, but now I’m lucky to find one wrench every two months. Prices have risen a lot, too. A pail of old common run-of-the-mill John Deere and IHC wrenches now goes for $20-30.”
Uncommon wrenches often belonged to machinery not used in Minnesota, Mark said. “The southern part of the country had different cotton pickers and machinery with different applications, and not a lot of them were made, so you just can’t find them up here.” Other wrenches are rare because only a few were ever manufactured.
Mark says it’s not unusual to find wrenches for $1,000 or $1,200 at wrench meets. “That’s not uncommon at all. The most expensive one, a TR590 for a Dain tractor, runs about $10,000.”
One of Mark’s rarest wrenches is the 375 Dain wrench, from a Marseilles corn sheller. “Only one other collector has that one,” he says. “I don’t know if the Dain wrenches were weak, or if people tried too hard with them, but most Dains seem to have an ear broken off.“
His largest John Deere wrench is the TR 590, a cutout wrench for the Dain tractor, an experimental model built by Deere & Co. ca. 1913. “It’s 14 inches long, and is probably the most-sought-after wrench of all, with only six known to exist.” Most have been found in South Dakota, where the Dain tractor was most used.
Wayne Dils and Gilbert Irps created lists of John Deere and IHC wrenches to help determine which are the rarest, based on what any fifteen wrench collectors might have in their collections. If all 15 collectors have it, the wrench is very common; if one collector has it, the wrench is very uncommon. For example, a John Deere Van Brunt grain drill implement was common on farms, so generally 15 out of 15 wrench collectors would have that one. On the other hand, only two collectors would have Mark’s 375 Dain/Marseille corn sheller wrench.
Other rarity-determining lists exist, helping collectors determine rarity and possible value.
Mark’s oldest wrench is probably the Gilpin wrench, for the Gilpin plow, named after Deere & Co. employee Gilpin Moore, who was superintendent of the company’s early iron works. Mark also has a Gilpin tool box from the same era, as well as a Gilpin footrest.
Mark has wrenches for a wide variety of other old machinery as well, like old buggies and different horse-drawn machinery.
Many wrenches look like wrenches, but others don’t. For example, the one used to adjust the pitch of a John Deere disc plow resembles a double-sided horn rather than a traditional wrench.
Besides wrenches, Mark also collects pieces of old machinery with the company names on them. “I enjoy finding these odd pieces,“ he says.
Some are mower lids. “John Deere built a lot of mowers with the toolbox cast right in the frame. The lid that was used to cover the toolbox had a flat cover, and these lids are hard to find.”
Sometimes Mark has had to buy an entire mower or other piece of old equipment to get the piece or pieces he wants.
Mark also likes to collect drill or seeder end lids. “Some of the Deere & Mansur are very hard to find.” The Van Brunt grain drill had a seeder attachment, a little seeder box added when a farmer was planting oats or beans, or alfalfa, or other really small grass seeds. Mark has several of these difficult-to-find items.
Mark also owns a John Deere trench guide, a piece he’s never seen actually on a piece of equipment. “It was used mostly in Nebraska where they dug irrigation trenches. The one I have is made out of cast iron, has the deer on it, and is really unique.”
Cast-iron tool boxes are another part of his collection. “Some of them are pretty hard to come by. The cast-iron ones came off sulky plows, and the tin ones with the company names cut out on their sides came off cultivators.”
He added that all of these are kind of unique pieces, too, and help tell the story of old machinery.
Mark keeps track of his thousands of wrenches and other old pieces of farm equipment two ways: by memory, and through pictures he’s taken and put in books. “I have all my John Deere and IHC wrenches written down, along with pictures of many of them, so when I go to a wrench meet or an auction, even though I pretty much know what I’ve got, I can check. I’ve taken notes on what I have, too.”
They are organized by company--all the John Deere together, for example--and then by subcategories of the companies allied with John Deere--Van Brunt, Tebbetts, Deere & Mansur, Syracuse Chilled Plow Co.--so he can easily check whether he has a certain wrench or not.
He added that if he finds duplicate “good” wrenches, he will snap them up either for resale down the road, or for swapping with others. “Sometimes you can trade a few wrenches for one good one,” he said.
Wrenches are more difficult to find now than ever, Mark says. In addition to searching for wrenches he doesn’t have, including chrome John Deere wrenches, which became mainstays on John Deere equipment starting in the 1970s, Mark enjoys attending swap meets to talk to other collectors, look at different pieces of machinery and learn more about how they were used. “The story behind it, I guess,” he said.
He also exhibited his pegboards of different wrenches and machinery parts at a variety of farm-related shows, attaching the boards to a low-boy and putting the trailer in a place where visitors can easily see it. “People ask a lot of the same questions,” he said. “’It must have taken you a long time,’ ‘Are they for sale?,’ ‘How long have you been doing this?,’ ‘You didn‘t start doing this yesterday,’ ‘Are they for sale?’” But he’s willing to answer all the questions not only because people are interested, but also because he’s interested in learning more about some of the old machinery and wrenches and other items he has.
Mark said he likes the old rusty patina of old wrenches, so he prefers to just clean any wrenches up with a wire brush, and then spray it with clear acrylic to protect it. “There are a few that I’ve painted, but I usually try to keep the rusty patina.”
One thing most people don’t realize is how many wrenches were made in the old days, Mark says. “Nowadays you can go to NAPA and find one wrench that fits everything. Back then, a wrench existed for every application, every one different, and every machine was different so it needed a different wrench. The wrenches I especially look for are those that are unique-looking wrenches, and they’re often more difficult to find.”
“I always have to tell people that there are many other collectors who have a lot more than I have. But it’s not about the numbers. Collecting wrenches is a hobby I really enjoy.”